PORT HUENEME, Calif., June 30, 2017 — Ryan Shannon grew up like most kids from a small town. He played sports and hung out with his friends and siblings. After high school, he did what most kids were expected to do: go to college and earn a degree in a chosen career field. However, one event changed everything.
“I never really thought of the military as an option for me,” Shannon said. “There was a school shooting in Northern Illinois. I lost a buddy. … He got shot saving his girlfriend’s life. It kind of altered my perception of what I was doing.”
The event impacted Shannon so much that he began to reconsider what he was doing with his life, and this eventually led him to the Navy.
“I didn’t really discuss it with anybody,” he said. “Went in [to the recruiter’s office], joined up and 13 days later I was leaving. My parents were kind of caught off-guard. It was definitely the right move.”
Like most new service members, Shannon found boot camp to be an eye-opening experience.
“Being tall was always an advantage my whole life,” he said. “But at boot camp, being tall was absolutely a disadvantage. You’re a target to those [recruit division commanders]. I learned pretty quickly how to follow orders.”
Before leaving boot camp, he was meritoriously promoted. Then he went off to submarine school, where he continued to excel and finished in the top three of his class, allowing him to be one of the first to choose orders.
“I really never had been outside of Illinois at that point,” said Shannon, who was an electronics technician. He thought, “I might as well go somewhere fun, so I choose Hawaii for my first duty station.”
Soon after reporting to the fast attack sub USS Pasadena, he merged into the submarine community.
“It was a family,” Shannon said. “You kind of just become brothers. It’s a pretty tight-knit group. It’s a submarine: If there is a mistake we’re all going to pay for it.”
When Shannon says his shipmates are family, he means it, as he proved one faithful night.
“I got the phone call from my ‘sea pup,’ who I helped raise and mentor,” Shannon said. “He was like, ‘The [USS] Miami is on fire.’ I was in half my uniform. I grabbed my stuff and started heading toward base. My wife picked me up in the car, and she was eight months pregnant with my son. The last thing my wife said to me that night was, ‘Don’t get in that submarine.’ It was hard to look her in the face and tell her I couldn’t make that promise.”
Once he got to the boat, he realized no one had really taken charge of the situation. So, ignoring the danger from the flames, he stepped up, grabbed some hoses and began directing others to combat the fire. Shannon still recalls the smell of burnt metal, and the heat on his skin from the melting of his uniform. Still, he operated a hose by himself and got water on the fire.
“[After] ten and a half hours, the fire finally went out,” he said. “And I went home. I didn’t know I had a [post-traumatic stress disorder] or anxiety. But my wife started noticing if a fire truck drove by, I was up on my feet looking, making sure they weren’t going to base. It would always stick in my head that maybe they’re heading to base, maybe something happened.”
This was only the beginning in a string of unfortunate events that would eventually force Shannon to medically retire from the Navy.
Coincidentally, the next injury was during a fire drill.
“I was on the bottom rack,” he remembers. “I rolled out and was bent over putting my boots on. Pure accident, another shipmate came out of the top rack — it’s a fire drill so it’s chaos — came down and I took one of his heels straight to the base of my neck and bounced my head in between my legs. I was unconscious [for a] very little time, nothing too crazy. But, I eventually was diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury, and lost a lot of memories. I don’t remember my kids being born, but I know I was there.”
To make matters worse, the brain injury made Shannon susceptible to depression. He initially received treatment for it, but after he transferred duty stations, he stopped going to medical. After a year of trying to deal with the ups and downs of depression, he finally decided to go back and started taking medication again.
Then bad luck struck again. While on liberty at the beach almost a year after his brain injury, Shannon broke his foot. Unfortunately, it went misdiagnosed for three months as a simple sprained ankle. The broken bones ended up sawing at everything around his foot. He developed complex regional pain syndrome, which is a type of chronic pain that can occur after an injury. The illness baffles doctors and is difficult to treat.
“Basically, my brain still thinks my foot is still broken to this day,” he explained. “When I do anything with my foot, my brain thinks it’s broken, so it sends pains signals. The problem is the medical community doesn’t know a whole lot about it. They don’t know how to cure it. I’ve done medications. I’ve had injections in my spine to try and help the pain, and I’ve got a spinal cord stimulator implanted in my spine. None of it seems to be working.”
The combination of these injuries and his battle with depression spiraled Shannon into the lowest point of his life. The guilt of not being “normal” and the inability to run around with his kids caused him to push away the most important things in his life.
“My kids are running around and my wife is there, and for some reason I didn’t care,” Shannon said. “I didn’t want my kids to be around. I didn’t want my wife to be around me. And that would only make the depression worse. I started thinking I didn’t want to be like this.”
Shannon found himself in a very dark place, one he had never imagined he would be in. He wanted a way out. The idea of suicide began to creep into his mind.
“My wife pulled me out of that by my hair,” Shannon said. “If it wasn’t for her, I honestly don’t think I’d be here. She said, ‘You need to go talk to somebody or we’re pulling out — me and the boys are gone.’ It was the easiest decision to make: I’m going to go talk to somebody.”
And he did. He reported the situation to his chief, and his chain of command got him the help he needed. However, it wouldn’t be the last time Shannon managed to escape the grips of death.
He had to take a lot of medication, including pain pills for his foot and prescribed medicine for his depression. One night, the mixture of those pills almost cost him his life.
“I remember this night super-clear in my head,” Shannon said. “I still have dreams about it. I took my meds, got real tired, but I was also really cold. I’m living in Hawaii; there’s no reason for me to be shivering. I lay down, and within 30 seconds, I got super-hot to where I was sweating and started getting dizzy. So, I got up. I really couldn’t see much; I was hitting the walls. My wife grabbed me and led me to the bathroom because I thought I was going to vomit.
“She went to get me a bottle of water. When she came back, I was on the ground. She said my body was trying to restart itself. I just remember everything going black, and kind of being able to hear my wife. It’s so weird trying to describe what happened that night. Something in me was like, ‘Alright, you could stay asleep or you can wake up.’ The first thing I thought of was my wife and kids. I needed to wake up. As soon as I made that decision, I woke up. And she was standing there, like a champion — like a hero — on the phone with the paramedics. No tears, calm. Doing what she needed to.”
Shift in Perspective
At the hospital, doctors told him his heart had stopped beating for 30 seconds and his wife revived him by beating on his chest. When Shannon found this out, his perspective on life shifted.
“There’s no reason I should be mad when I’m in a traffic jam or when the smallest things go wrong,” Shannon said. “In my mind, technically I shouldn’t even be here.”
Not taking life for granted has led Shannon to where he is today. Unable to continue in the Navy, he longed to regain the camaraderie of shipmates. When he found out about the Navy’s Wounded Warrior team, it was a perfect fit.
“We all feel normal around each other,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about not being able to do this because I have this injury. There is always somebody here that understands it. I made some of my best friends on this team. It’s very much like the submarine community, where I could depend on anybody. I can reach out to anybody on this team and they’re going to listen; they’re going to help.”
Doctors had told Shannon that he would never run again — devastating news for a former college track and field star. During his first Wounded Warrior Games, however, he proved those doctors wrong — very wrong.
“Right now, I hold the record for the 400- and 800-[meter runs] in my category,” Shannon said. “I went home last year with two gold and two silver [medals]. I’m defending those records this year, so I hope to set the bar a little higher.”
On top of running, he also plans to participate in sitting volleyball and swimming at the 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games, which are being held in Chicago from June 30-July 8.
He leaves other injured service members with one piece of advice.
“There’s no reason why your injury needs to define you as a person,” Shannon said. “I’m 29 with a handicap placard, but that doesn’t have to define me. I’m not going to let my injuries define me. I’ll define myself.”